Spring Break is just a few short weeks away. No doubt there are many families that would love to take full advantage of this time off. Why not take a family trip to Big Bend? Big Bend National Park is the United States’ 15th largest national park. It’s located in southwest Texas and includes the entire Chisos mountain range and a large part of the Chihuahuan Desert. It’s beautiful in its own way, and worth visiting. We took our 10 year old and newborn son just last month. It was a nice to feel safe, away from people during this pandemic. I’ve put together a family travel guide to assist you.
What To See/Do in Big Bend National Park
Become a Junior Ranger (for kids)- Pick up a free Junior Ranger Activity Book at any park visitor center. The book is full of fun activities about the park’s history, wildlife, plants, and geology. After you complete your activities, review them with a ranger. The ranger will sign your certificate and present you with an official Junior Ranger badge!
See-The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive leads to the ruins of Sam Nail Ranch, now home to desert wildlife.
You Must Explore: The Santa Elena Canyon, carved by the Rio Grande, features steep limestone cliffs. It’s looks like a huge wall diving the United States from Mexico. The 1 mile hike along the canyon wall is scenic and relaxing. It’s moderate in difficulty and easy for an 8 year old child.
Hike– Window View Trail. It’s one of the easiest hike being paved the entire way, and only .3 of a mile long. This spot is one of the best places for sunset views. Expect crowds near the end of the day.
Stoll-Tuff Canyon is super easy. It’s .75 stroll that is mostly flat. It’s right off the Maxwell Scenic Drive. This is hike offers walk the short loop that over looks the shallow canyons below, or take the spur that goes thru the canyons. It’s very easy for small children and no more than 30 minutes long.
When To Visit
The best times of year to visit Big Bend National Park is in spring and fall. Temperatures will be mild, not too hot for long hikes, and not too cold for camping under the stars. Summers are sweltering, with temperatures regularly surpassing 100 degrees, and winters can be harsh and freezing in the desert.
Where To Stay
(Outdoors): Big Bend has three campgrounds in the park—the Chisos Basin, with 63 sites; Cottonwood, 35 miles from Panther Junction, near the historic Castolon store in the western part of the park, with 35 sites shaded by a huge grove of cottonwood trees; and Rio Grande Village, 20 miles from Panther Junction, on the east side of the park, with 100 sites and an overflow campground, as well as a smaller trailer park with hookups ($12.50 a night), a store, gas station, self-service laundry, and the park’s only public showers.
Terlingua Base Camp– just minutes away from Big Bend is the Terlingua Base. You can choose to stay in a tipi, a bubble tent, a retro trailer, a casita, a lotus tent, or bring your our accommodations! You’ll enjoy panoramic views of Big Bend. *Please note, Terlingua is a rustic ghost town. There are not many stores here at all. You internet signal will be spotty, but the views are wonderful.
(Indoors) An Air BnB will always be my favorite place to stay when traveling with children. It’s the best place to call home when you’re away from home. However, you’ll find that many of them are expensive. Other options include:
The sole choice inside the park is the Chisos Mountains Lodge at the basin. Its central location is certainly more convenient to most park activities, but if you feel the need for a telephone, a choice of restaurants, and such valuable amusements for kids as in-room TV and an on-site swimming pool, stay outside the park. Demand is so heavy that booking cottages a year in advance is a must. You can call to check on last-minute cancellations and no-shows.
There are motels to the west of the park in Study Butte (24 miles from Panther Junction) and Lajitas (41 miles) and to the north in Marathon (69 miles). In Study Butte (pronounced “Stewdy Byoot”) you’ll find the Big Bend Motor Inn and the companion Mission Lodge across the highway. They offer two plain but clean motels with a gift shop, a pool, and a combination gas station, convenience store, and cafe. The TVs are hooked up to a satellite and, true to Big Bend’s nonconformist bent, carry channels from New York City and Raleigh, North Carolina. Also try the Chisos Mining Company Motel, whose pleasantly decorated rooms are housed in a string of connected prefab buildings. A double is $48 a night. The motel at the Terlingua Ranch (371-2416), about 30 miles north and east of the Study Butte intersection, has a restaurant, a pool, and modern rooms that start at $33 for a double. The secluded Longhorn Ranch Moteel, just 12 miles north of the Study Butte intersection, has 24 homey, tastefully appointed units laid out like a cavalry outpost. It has also has TVs, a swimming pool, and a restaurant but no in-room phones. A double is $50.
If you want luxury try the resort town of Lajitas. It has the widest array of lodging choices west of the park—81 motel rooms, a bunkhouse, cabins, and condos, most furnished with antiques and equipped with a telephone and satellite TV, along with access to a pool (central reservations). Remember luxury often means expensive.
Lajitas is dubbed “the Palm Springs of Texas” by its boosters and “Wally World” by its detractors, the latter in honor of Houston developer Walter Mischer, who dreamed up this ersatz Dodge City twenty years ago. Complementing the lodging are convention facilities, a bar and restaurant, a nine-hole golf course, an airstrip, stables, tennis courts, mountain bike rentals, and the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center desert museum and gardens. The covered faux Western town boardwalk is Lajitas’ commercial center, with a drugstore and soda fountain, a liquor store, the offices of Big Bend River Tours, an art gallery, a gift shop, and the Badlands Hotel.
Some suggested Side Trips
The Monahan Sand Hills– An Ocean of Sand. Out west lies a mystical place where the wind sculpts sand dunes into peaks and valleys, sometimes overnight. It costs 4 per person to enter the state park. You can rent a round disk to slide on, which is lots of fun for the entire family. Pack a light lunch and don’t forget to being your sunblock when visiting.
Marfa Lights– Since you are so close, why not take a trip over to the small town of Marfa, Texas to see the mysterious Marfa Lights? Many people have reported seeing the random lights dance on the horizon just southeast of town. The area is nearly uninhabited. The mystery lights are sometimes red, sometimes blue, sometimes white, and usually appear randomly throughout the night, no matter the season or the weather.
Please stay safe, especially during this pandemic. Face masks are required on NPS-administered lands where physical distancing cannot be maintained and in all NPS buildings and facilities. Park operations vary based on local public health conditions. Before visiting, please check the park website to determine its operating status. Additional details are available at www.nps.gov/coronavirus. Please recreate responsibly. I hope you found this family travel guide helpful. Happy travels!